Tuesday 4 June 2013

Space Milkshake (2012)

Director: Armen Evrensel
Stars: Robin Dunne, Billy Boyd, Kristin Kreuk, George Takei and Amanda Tapping
This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
More than ever before, this is sci-fi television turned into a comedy feature film. You might think immediately of Galaxy Quest, but that mostly spoofed one show and was cast chiefly with movie actors. As befits its title, Space Milkshake spoofs so many sci-fi shows that you'll count them and it's cast directly from some of them. Of a cast of seven, three of whom only provide voices, we're given two lead actors from Sanctuary and one from each of Smallville, Star Trek, Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis and Supernatural. Amanda Tapping turns out to be most of these on her own, as she was Maj Samantha Carter in both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis, Dr Helen Magnus on Sanctuary (both the web series and the TV show), and is now recurring on Supernatural as Naomi. Her Sanctuary co-star is Robin Dunne, who played Dr Will Zimmerman; Smallville is represented by Kristin Kreuk, who played Lana Lang; and George Takei's voice is here from Star Trek.

There's also Billy Boyd from The Lord of the Rings movies, which breaks the whole alliterative S motif, but he's clearly trying to be Simon Pegg from Shaun of the Dead, just as a Scotsman, so perhaps it all works out in the end. He's Anton Balvenie, the captain of the Regina, not a galaxy exploring spaceship but an Orbital Sanitation Station, number 8518. His crew aren't astronauts, they're garbage collectors because, in the 22nd century, space debris is a serious problem, as is clear from the ring of rubbish we see around the planet Earth. One collision is enough to prompt space travel to be halted for months, so clearly it's important to make sure that doesn't happen. Tasked with keeping the spacelanes clear, busy and moving are crews like the Regina's, who are entry level techs, one of them seeing orbit for the first time. As you can easily imagine, this is a dysfunctional crew in a barely functional station with an unorthodox set of priorities.

What sparks the plot is a cargo shuttle which takes off from the Quantum Transportation Research Station in Antartica, disappears, reappears and collides with a orbiting screw. Balvenie plays it by the book and refuses to clear the way, but leaps at the chance to salvage the vessel afterwards, even against direct orders. They pick up a power source from the rubble, which you won't be too surprised causes the Regina to travel in ways it doesn't expect. Next thing they know, they're out of touch with everything and the orbiting trash that they know so well has vanished. Now the crew of four, along with a computer that they haven't even fixed yet, need to figure out where they are and how they can get home. Given that it's often a stretch for them to even talk to each other, it's hardly going to be an easy ride. The bizarre events that start to unfold under their very noses only serve to render that outcome even more unlikely.
And so, as we wait to see how the story will pan out, we watch the characters. The first obvious comparison is Red Dwarf, a British show built on characters and wild sci-fi shenanigans. This film and that TV show have much in common: both of them follow a tiny crew of menial workers in a huge spacecraft who have been cut off from the rest of humanity and may well be all that's left. Boyd, looking utterly unlike Pippin from The Lord of the Rings, is nominally in charge and he has the same sort of officious, by the book nature as Rimmer in Red Dwarf, but his idea of leadership is sticking to a schedule. Everything happens when it's scheduled: from breakfast to bedtime and from callisthenics to Scrabble. He's also perpetually in the middle of whatever is going on, because he finds it difficult to preserve any form of relationship, whether official or personal, as proved by the broken one he has with his second in command, Valentina, played by Amanda Tapping.

Valentina would appear to have precisely nothing in common with Balvenie except the Regina and she's happily trying to leave both. Fortunately she doesn't, because she's the key to getting back home again, through the plot convenience that she used to work at the Quantum Transportation Research Station under Prof Gary Pinback, who theorised about interdimensional travel to parallel realities. As luck would have it, Gary is on board too, having been thrust into a transdimensional rift and brought on board in the form of a rubber duck that collides with the Regina after it shifts. Here's where the Douglas Adams influences come in. Like the B Ark's captain in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Valentina spends a lot of time in the bath. That show explained that 'you're never alone with a rubber duck'; this film applies that to a form of Alien, right down to the moves of Dr Pinback's face hugger phase, before he becomes Audrey from The Little Shop of Horrors.

Here to battle Gary is Tilda, initially the blasé operations officer who doesn't speak much but soon the parallel universe robot version trying to save infinite universes from being destroyed. She still doesn't speak much, at least initially, but she looks like Kristin Kreuk, so it's hardly surprising that the Everyman of the bunch, Jimmy Anderson, falls for her anyway. He's the new guy, a tech who's on board with faked paperwork to fix Wendi, the ship's computer, another Red Dwarf parallel, as it changes sex but not name partway through. 'It's not as exciting as I thought it'd be,' says Jimmy at one point, talking about life on an orbital station, but needless to say he's soon proved wrong. Robin Dunne has a lot of fun as Jimmy, playing him as loosely as Kreuk is precise as Tilda. There's another Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy nod when the two find a way to communicate with each other, through a Scrabble board, an appropriate parallel to their situation in many ways.
Surprisingly, given all the British sci-fi references during the build, Space Milkshake is a Canadian film, shot in Saskatchewan, whose capital city gave its name to the story's setting, the Regina. Its biggest successes are in channelling those diverse British influences into something new, which is a tough balancing act to keep and one that isn't consistently successful. Almost everything here is derivative, but for maybe two thirds of the film it's kept interesting with fresh characters and neat, quirky situations. The brokedown machinery, so reminiscent of Ron Goulart novels but more likely sourced from Douglas Adams, provides nice touches throughout too, like the food outlet that only dishes out sandwiches, a close cousin to the Sirius Cybernetic Corporation's Nutrimatic drinks dispenser. I loved the door to the control room which looks like it ought to retract but never does, thus serving mostly to trip up Jimmy on a regular basis, a recurring gag that grounds him for us.

Unfortunately, while the final act is just as derivative, it's far more clichéd. Instead of enjoying the homages and acknowledging their sources with a smile, the later scenes frequently contain less targeted references and more generic sci-fi moments that are unworthy of inclusion. I didn't find myself cringing for the first hour, however recognisable much of the material was, but that wasn't a rare reaction later on in the film, where Armen Evrensel, who wrote and directed, may well have just run out of influences to nod at. Just like the film as a whole, each of the characters build well but once they reach a certain point, they stagnate into cliché and all of them deserved more. Tilda should have been more than a Galaxina clone. Valentina should have had a better crisis of choice. Anton shouldn't have been sidelined. Jimmy, especially, deserved much more of a focus given that Robin Dunne is technically top billed and he's who we identify with.

In fact, the crew take a backseat once Gary the tentacled rubber duck shows up, not because he's a classic screen villain but because George Takei's voicework utterly steals the show. I remember Takei well from the original series of Star Trek and even more from the movies, but he was merely a good part of a good ensemble cast. Since his reinvention in the internet age, he's become a real star, thus far resisting becoming a caricature of himself like William Shatner. He just has fun here, as he apparently does in everything he puts his name to. Since his last Star Trek feature in 1991, I've enjoyed him having a blast in Bug Buster and two Oblivion movies and I totally want to watch him play the sensei being rescued by the title characters in Ninja Cheerleaders. Unfortunately, he doesn't always pick the best movies to have fun in. This one is certainly better than Bug Buster, but it needed to raise its game to match his contribution and unfortunately it fell apart instead.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

But you didn't acknowledge the reference between Prof Pinback and Dan O'Bannon's character of Sgt Pinback in in the 1974 movie Dark Star (with John Carpenter).